[7 August 2014]
Last weekend I did quite a bit of portable gaming, but it wasn’t the handheld variety. Instead of pocketing a DS or Vita, I packed up my Wii U and headed over to Jorge Albor’s place to play Mario Kart and invent new curse words. The process of bundling up my normally sedentary console made me realize that every Nintendo console that I’ve ever owned has had at least some component of mobility thanks either to the marquee games or novel hardware.
Before launching down memory lane, it’s worth noting that the Wii U is a troublesome travel companion. The Wii ushered in an avalanche of plastic accessories, all of which carry forward to the latest system. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a tangled mess of Wii-motes, Nunchuks, and classic controllers. Of course there’s also the balance board, Wii Motion Plus dongles, and the new Pro controller to add to the pile. The system itself has also started to sprawl. The gamepad has its power source, which is separate from the console’s power brick. Don’t forget the sensor bar, its little cradle, and the tangle-prone cord tethering it to the console. By the time I had everything packed up, my bag looked like a doomsday device.
Of course, it was all worth it once the shrieks of despair that follow a blue shell started up. Like every other Nintendo console I’ve ever used, the Wii U is built to inspire quasi-mobility.
The earliest memory I have of the NES is when my uncle brought it over for the family to play during the holidays. We took up our traditional stations (on the floor crammed close to the television in our grandma’s living room) and marveled at what was clearly the coolest thing in the world. Duck Hunt was a fan favorite, largely because the analogy to reality was so obvious. People of any age understood the concept and the form, which was something Nintendo would come back to decades later.
I don’t remember lugging my Super Nintendo around very much, probably because all my friends seemed to have one. I do remember it being the era of the traveling peripheral. A few of us had multi taps, which meant lots of controllers and lots of Bomberman. These controllers weren’t always blessed with the Nintendo Seal of Quality. I seem to remember all manner of weird turbo buttons and rad 90s color schemes. This being the era of Street Fighter meant that going over to someone else’s house meant bringing your controller of choice with you.
Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros.. This system was meant to be shared. Its pricey cartridges and lack of Squaresoft games also meant that not everyone would have one. The system and its odd three-pronged controller inevitably found its way to parties and continued to do so long past the release of its successor. No optical drive and a surprisingly sturdy casing meant one would inevitably be lugged around to various college parties.
The thing literally had a handle on it. It was a portable Smash Bros. box.
Roughly 20 years after the NES, the Wii used the same approach to hitch rides. The controller was a familiar object and using it to roll a bowling ball or swing a tennis racket provided the same real world analogy as the Zapper. Its games usually accommodated a crowd and elicited the same type of banter that a traditional board game or ping pong match would create. The early games in particular did a good job of getting the most out of the motion controls while masking some of their limitations. Hearing about how swinging a virtual baseball bat was as easy as swinging your controller was one thing; directly experiencing it made it real.
This “seeing is believing” phenomenon is already catching on with the impending wave of VR headsets. Devices like the Oculus are easy to grasp from an intellectual standpoint, but feeling it in the pit of your (potentially nauseous) stomach is the real thing that wins converts. Like many of these Nintendo systems, it’s small enough to lug around and the early software lends itself well to the parlor-game approach that makes an impression at parties. From the earliest days, Nintendo has combined the in-person, social multiplayer approach with novel hardware and the result has been systems and peripherals that tend to escape the walls of their normal homes. If history is any indication, whatever it is that sits on my entertainment center after the Wii U will make some cross-town excursions as well.